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Museum Blog

A detective story going back 176 years

Posted 7/4/2014 12:07 AM by Frank Krell | Comments
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John Witt Randall (1813–1892), great-grandson of Samuel Adams, the American revolutionary patriot, was an art collector (Rembrandt, Dürer, etc.) and poet who in his early years published a few zoological papers in which he described numerous new species of beetles and crustaceans from the United States. For over 150 years, his insect collection has been believed to be lost, often hindering the correct interpretation of his species names. One of his species, the dung beetle Aphodius nodifrons, described in 1838, is a junior synonym of the common red-winged Aphodius dung beetle, found everywhere in Colorado, North America, Europe and wide parts of Asia, and now known to consist of two distinct, cryptic species. To which of these two species A. nodifrons is a synonym was unclear. The specimens Randall had used for his description, the type specimens, had to be found. That they were believed to be lost was no reason for me not to search for them. My colleague, Robert Angus from London, found two "Aphodius nodifrons" in the collection of The Natural History Museum London. Since Randall's name nodifrons has hardly ever been used by others, could these be original specimens? They were accessioned in 1844 from the Entomological Club in London and originated from Thaddeus William Harris, the famous Harvard entomologist, who had sent them to John Curtis, the famous British entomologist and former member of the Club. Harris's list of the collection sent to Curtis, preserved in the Archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, indeed contained two specimens of Aphodius nodifrons! However, the two London specimens had labels of similar design, but different handwriting. We know that Randall gave specimens to Harris, but we did not know that Randall labeled them in Harris's style. Comparing the two different handwritings with letters and manuscripts of both scholars preserved in the Harvard Archives, we identified one as Harris's and the other one as Randall's. With this knowledge, we checked the holdings of the Harris collection in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and indeed, the two types of labels were present on other specimens there. The original Randall material was found and the identity of A. nodifrons determined. It is a synonym of Aphodius pedellus (De Geer, 1774). We published the results in a paper in Zootaxa and included handwriting samples and photos of the labels so that other taxonomists can identify Randall specimens in Harris's collection and resolve the identities of the species he described.

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